An agency’s adventures with apps

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This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of CRN magazine.

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An agency’s adventures with apps

Digital agency IE began life 12 years ago designing websites for large corporate and government customers. The projects, hosted in a collo data centre, became more and more complex until a few years later the agency was building full-blown applications.

IE faced its first major turning point when a new campaign to promote thousands of moustaches stretched their creative and technical skills into the vanguard of leading-edge technology.

"When we started developing Movember, MySpace was still bigger than Facebook," says Rhys Hayes, IE’s co-founder. "There were no social-by-design e-commerce platforms or CMS’ – there still aren’t. We had to design Movember from the ground up as a custom-built app on the Zend framework."

Once IE had tackled the challenges of building the app, Hayes had to work out how to run it. It was impossible to test Movember in the wild because the campaign only ran for six weeks and lay dormant the rest of the year. But the scale of the app forced the agency to question its strengths and its focus.

The agency had previously managed its own infrastructure, designing and developing web solutions on its own server. Movember required scalability and reliability, which IE couldn’t handle with its own collocated hardware in Global Crossing. The project forced the company’s hand to find a managed hosting partner who could handle the traffic peaks during Movember’s high season.

"Movember was unique in that it was growing exponentially, it required a significant amount of infrastructure at the server level, and it didn’t make sense to own that infrastructure for six weeks a year.

"They were the perfect cloud customer," Hayes says.

The path for scalable hosting led to Bulletproof Networks. IE set up Movember on virtualised machines (before the hoster had signed up with Amazon Web Services) and eventually moved all its development out of Global Crossing.

"Even though it didn’t look like it made commercial sense initially, we introduced Bulletproof directly to our clients," Hayes says. "What emerged for us was that the management of infrastructure was beyond our capability and focus.

It is an entirely different service to application development."

Bulletproof passed the Movember test and IE felt it could safely hand over responsibility for infrastructure to a partner with similarly high standards. 

The agency continued to focus on its combination of user experience, design and technical capability in application development without being held accountable "for things that are outside our remit", Hayes says.

The decision to partner with a managed hosting provider allowed IE to expand quickly and take on more cloud-based applications, most of which run on Amazon Web Services, overseen by Bulletproof. Traffic growth has since exploded to take advantage of the high-scaling cloud service.

"Nine years ago, we were only a 14-person company, and our monthly bill just to support a couple of servers on Global Crossing was $10,000-$15,000 a month. I don’t know what we were doing data wise, but what we would do in a year then, we could do in a day now," Hayes says.

The marketplace expects enterprise levels of redundancy and availability in any website. Everyone expects their online banking or favourite shops to be available 24 hours a day, Hayes says. Finding the right hosting partner means application developers can focus on the creative and commercial aspects of a project without worrying about the technical requirements to deliver the app to customers.

"It would be impossible for us to deliver the kinds of user experience for our clients in a remotely cost-effective manner. For us and everyone that works on the app development side, you can confidently develop more complex apps that can scale to meet variable user loads. That helps the user experience become more engaging and exciting. And that’s only made possible by the cloud."  

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